Category: Law

Judge Richard Neely, RIP

Judge Richard Neely, former head of the WV Supreme Court, held a special place in my heart. I never met the man but early on in my career, Eric Helland and I wrote a paper on elected judges and tort awards (PDF):

We argue that partisan elected judges have an incentive to redistribute wealth from out‐of‐state defendants (nonvoters) to in‐state plaintiffs (voters). We first test the hypothesis by using cross‐state data. We find a significant partisan effect after controlling for differences in injuries, state incomes, poverty levels, selection effects, and other factors. One difference that appears difficult to control for is that each state has its own tort law. In cases involving citizens of different states, federal judges decide disputes by using state law. Using these diversity‐of‐citizenship cases, we conclude that differences in awards are caused by differences in electoral systems, not by differences in state law.

While researching the paper I found this quote from Neely and when I read it I knew we were going to be published in a good journal:

As long as I am allowed to redistribute wealth from out-of-state companies to injured in-state plaintiffs, I shall continue to do so. Not only is my sleep enhanced when I give someone’s else money away, but so is my job security, because the in-state plaintiffs, their families, and their friends will reelect me. (Neely 1988, p. 4).

That is what you call anecdotal gold.

To be clear, when Neely was looking for a law clerk he advertised:

“America’s laziest and dumbest judge” seeks “a bright person to keep (the judge) from looking stupid,” and gave preference to University of Virginia law students “who studied interesting but useless subjects at snobby schools.”

Neely spoke brutally honestly to break conventions and reveal underlying truths. Thank you Judge Neely for your candor as it surely helped me in my career.

Free Britney Spears

Jamie Spears was authorized by the California Superior Court to control his daughter’s finances, health care, and aspects of her daily routine. The conservatorship was initially temporary. Twelve years later, it’s still in place. The court documents and hearings—there have been many over the years—have been mostly sealed to the public, so little is known about the actual nature and conditions of the agreement.

Britney’s father can control virtually all of the terms of her life, and Britney is vociferously opposed to having him as her “conservator.”  I know very little about the mental condition of Britney Spears, but I would think the case for enslaving her — as we have done — should face a very high bar indeed.  She hardly seems totally unable to function:

She released four albums, went on as many world tours and, for her successful Piece of Me residency in Las Vegas, played 248 shows in the span of four years, grossing $500,000 per show.

Guess who controls the money and the terms of employment?  The Straussian element shows up on Instagram:

What appears to the uninitiated as a random assortment of selfies, inspirational quotes, and dance videos is, according to supporters of the so-called #FreeBritney movement, a desperate plea for help. First, there was the color of her shirt, which appeared to match commenters’ calls for her to wear yellow (or red, or blue, or white, or anything) if she were in trouble. Then there were the roses, “a symbol of secrecy and silence,” as one user pointed out. In one video, Spears walks back and forth nine times, obviously Morse code for SOS. And then of course there were her eyelashes.

Here is the full article from Vanity Fair. Don’t forget this:

“Conservatorships are very hard to get out of—much, much harder to get out of than to get into, and that’s something many people don’t realize, even people who are seeking conservatorships,” said Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Project.

Britney’s life matters, free Britney Spears.

Paige Harden on Genetic Differences and the Left

Paige Harden, the left-leaning behavioral geneticist, brings the fire in comments on an AEON article about her work:

In this article, Erik Parens urges me and other scientists working in the field of social genomics to “curb [our] optimism” regarding how genetic discoveries could be used to advance progressive and egalitarian social goals. In my view, however, it is Parens and other critics of social genomics who need to curb their optimism, in two ways.

First, Parens is overly optimistic that social science can ever hope to be successful without genetics. In reality, social scientists have failed, time and time again, to produce interventions that bring about lasting improvements in people’s lives. There are many reasons for that failure. But one reason is that many scientists continue to engage in what the sociologist Jeremy Freese has called a “tacit collusion” to avoid reckoning, in their research designs and in their causal inferences, with the fact that people are genetically different from one another.

All interventions and policies are built on a model of how the world works: “If I change x, then y will happen.” A model of the world that pretends all people are genetically the same, or that the only thing people inherit from their parents is their environment, is a wrong model of how the world works. The more often our models of the world are wrong, the more often we will continue to fail in designing interventions and policies that do what they intend to do. The goal of integrating genetics into the social sciences is not to design boutique educational interventions tailored for children’s genotypes. It is to help rescue us from our current situation, where most educational interventions tested don’t work for anyone. This track record of failure plays directly into the hands of a right-wing that touts the ineffectiveness of intervention as evidence for its false narrative of genetic determinism.

Second, Parens and other critics are overly optimistic that their strategy of disapproval, discouragement, and disavowal of genetic research will be effective in neutralizing the pernicious ideologies of the far-right. What is the evidence that this strategy actually works? Herrnstein and Murray published “The Bell Curve” when I was 12 years old; Murray published “Human Diversity” when I was 37 years old; and in all that time, the predominant response from the political left has remained pretty much exactly the same – emphasize people’s genetic sameness, question the wisdom of doing genetic research at all, urge caution. Yet, the far-right is ascendant. In my view, the left’s response to genetic science simply preaches to its own choir. Meanwhile, this strategy of minimization allows right-wing ideologues to offer to “red-pill” people with the “forbidden knowledge” of genetic results.

What the left hasn’t done (yet) is formulate a messaging strategy that (a) reconciles the existence of human genetic differences with people’s moral and political commitments to human equality, and (b) is readily comprehensible outside the confines of the ivory tower. Reminding people that genes are a source of luck in their lives has the potential to be that message. Parens characterizes me as making a “generous hearted but large leap” to expect that portraying genes as luck will change people’s minds, but economic research suggests that reminding people of the role of luck in their lives does, in fact, make them more supportive of redistribution.

Overall, this article portrays me and others working in this space as “soft-pedaling” the dangers of social genomics being appropriated by the far right. But I am fully cognizant of the dangers. Parens is the one who is soft-pedaling. He is soft-pedaling the enormous damage done to progress in psychology, sociology, and other social sciences – fields that are tasked with improving people’s lives – by their refusal to engage with genetics. And, he is soft-pedaling the danger of simply continuing the left’s decades-old, easily-“red-pilled” rhetorical strategy at a time with right-wing ideologies are on the rise globally.

Are body cameras effective for constraining police after all?

Controversial police use of force incidents have spurred protests across the nation and calls for reform. Body-worn cameras (BWCs) have received extensive attention as a potential key solution. I conduct the first nationwide study of the effects of BWCs in more than 1,000 agencies. I identify the causal effects by using idiosyncratic variation in adoption timing attributable to administrative hurdles and the lengthy process to the eventual adoption at different agencies. This empirical strategy addresses limitations of previous studies that evaluated BWCs within a single agency; in a single-agency setting, the control group officers are also indirectly affected by BWCs because they interact with the treatment group officers (spillover), and agencies that give researchers access may fundamentally differ from other agencies (site-selection bias). Overcoming these limitations, my multi-agency study finds that BWCs have led to a substantial drop in the use of force, both among whites and minorities. Nationwide, they reduce police-involved homicides by 43%. Surprisingly, I do not find evidence that BWCs are associated with de-policing. Examining social media usage data from Twitter as well as data on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, I find that after BWC adoption, public opinion toward the police improves. These findings imply that BWCs can be an important tool for improving police accountability without sacrificing policing capabilities.

That is from a new paper by Taeho Kim, on the job market from the University of Chicago, a Steve Levitt student.  The piece has a revise and resubmit from ReStat.

Our regulatory state is failing us, FAA edition

The Federal Aviation Administration has for months been weighing whether to allow the nation’s more than 500 federally subsidized airports to spend their money on screening passengers for the coronavirus, an issue teed up by a plan developed by a fairly small airport in Iowa.

Marty Lenss, director of Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, began working on the plan in the spring, when the spread of the virus and lockdown orders brought air travel to a near standstill.

Lenss worked with a local hospital to craft a plan to quickly screen travelers before they passed through security. He figured he could cover the $800,000 cost by using some of the $23 million the airport received under the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package known as the Cares Act.

The local airport commission signed off on the plan in July, agreeing to make the screening mandatory. At a public meeting shortly before the vote, Lenss predicted he would have the program up and running by September.

But months after Lenss started work, no passengers have been screened. Airport funds are tightly controlled by federal rules, so Lenss started asking the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in May if his plan qualified. He’s still waiting for an answer.

“We would have started the FAA conversation much earlier if we’d anticipated the time it’s been taking,” Lenss said. “At this point, I really don’t have a timeline when we might hear. We’re in limbo.”

Here is the full story, outrages throughout.

The local amenities effect of Prohibition

Comparing same-state early and late adopters of county dry laws in a difference-in-differences design, we find that early Prohibition adoption increased population and farm real estate values. Moreover, we find strong effects on farm productivity consistent with increased investment due to a land price channel. In equilibrium, the amenity change disproportionately attracted immigrants and African-Americans.

That is from a new paper by Greg Howard and Arianna Ornaghi, revise and resubmit at Journal of Economic History.  Arianna is on the job market from MIT, here is her job market paper and broader portfolio.  Here is her paper on civil service reforms for U.S. police departments.

New results on vaccine-mask interaction

However, if face mask use is reduced by 50%, a vaccine that is only 50% effective (weak vaccine) would require coverage of 55-94% to suppress the epidemic in these states [CA, NY, TX, FL]. A vaccine that is 80% effective (moderate vaccine) would only require 32-57% coverage to suppress the epidemic. In contrast, if face mask usage stops completely, a weak vaccine would not suppress the epidemic, and further major outbreaks would occur. A moderate vaccine with coverage of 48-78% or a strong vaccine (100% effective) with coverage of 33-58% would be required to suppress the epidemic.

That is from a new paper by Mingwang Shen,, via Alan Goldhammer.

As for the European lockdowns currently under way, I do not know which choices those nations should be making.  The British one, which I know the most about, seems far too strict to me. No matter what your exact point of view, surely there is something to David Conn’s comment:

Government gone from spending £500m paying people to eat out, to closing all the restaurants, in 2 months.

In any case, if those nations had continued (or in some cases initiated) widespread mask use, they would be facing much, much better trade-offs today.

Rational Criminals, Irrational Lawmakers

Columnist Phil Matier writes in the SFChroncile about rampant, brazen shoplifting in San Francisco.

After months of seeing its shelves repeatedly cleaned out by brazen shoplifters, the Walgreens at Van Ness and Eddy in San Francisco is getting ready to close.

…“All of us knew it was coming. Whenever we go in there, they always have problems with shoplifters, ” said longtime customer Sebastian Luke, who lives a block away and is a frequent customer who has been posting photos of the thefts for months. The other day, Luke photographed a man casually clearing a couple of shelves and placing the goods into a backpack.

Most of the remaining products were locked behind plastic theft guards, which have become increasingly common at drugstores in recent years.

But at Van Ness Avenue and Eddy Street, even the jugs of clothing detergent on display were looped with locked anti-theft cables.

When a clerk was asked where all the goods had gone, he said, “Go ask the people in the alleys, they have it all.”

No sooner had the clerk spoken than a man wearing a virus mask walked in, emptied two shelves of snacks into a bag, then headed back for the door. As he walked past the checkout line, a customer called out, “Sure you don’t want a drink with that?”

…Under California law, theft of less than $950 in goods is treated as a nonviolent misdemeanor. The maximum sentence for petty theft is six months in county jail. But most of the time the suspect is released with conditions attached.

Some stores have hired private security firms or off-duty police officers to deter would-be thieves. But security is expensive and can cost upward of $1,000 a day. Add in the losses from theft, and the cost of doing business can become too high for a store to stay open.

Perhaps San Francisco helps us with Tyler’s “solve for the Seattle Equilibrium” challenge.

The best argument against the Electoral College

Contrary to conventional intellectual wisdom there are not many good ones, but this packs some real force:

Starting from probabilistic simulations of likely presidential election outcomes that are similar to the output from election forecasting models, we calculate the likelihood of disputable, narrow outcomes under the Electoral College. The probability that the Electoral College is decided by 20,000 ballots or fewer in a single, pivotal state is greater than 1-in-10. Although it is possible in principle for either system to generate more risk of a disputable election outcome, in practice the Electoral College today is about 40 times as likely as a National Popular Vote to generate scenarios in which a small number of ballots in a pivotal voting unit determines the Presidency.

And note this, which explains a good deal of the debate and rationalizations — on both sides:

This disputed-election risk is asymmetric across political parties. It is about twice as likely that a Democrat’s (rather than Republican’s) Electoral College victory in a close election could be overturned by a judicial decision affecting less than 1,000, 5,000, or 10,000 ballots in a single, pivotal state.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Michael Geruso and Dean Spears.

The biggest cost of the trade war — less access to Chinese vaccines

From my Bloomberg column:

The current portfolio is multinational, including investments in Pfizer, Sanofi, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. Ideally, there should be at least one Chinese vaccine included, but there is not.

Obviously, given the rhetoric of the current administration, using a Chinese vaccine would be politically difficult. You can’t call it “the Chinese virus” and then tell Americans they ought to take a Chinese vaccine. So the Trump administration has made no serious effort to make a vaccine-sharing deal with China.


The matter is hardly settled, but at the very least the Chinese vaccines are not dropping out of contention.

Note that a year’s worth of partial protection still could go a long way.  Recommended.

The AstraZeneca trial is allowed to resume

Federal health regulators have decided to allow the resumption of U.S. studies of a leading Covid-19 vaccine candidate from AstraZeneca PLC and the University of Oxford, according to a person familiar with the matter and materials reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Here is the WSJ article, no real explanation given by either the company or the FDA.

The window tax

The window tax in Great Britain (1696–1851) provides a remarkable case of tax-induced distortions in resource allocation. Tax liabilities on dwelling units depended on the number of windows in the unit. As a consequence, people boarded up windows and built houses with very few windows, to the detriment of both health and aesthetics. Using data from local tax records on individual houses, the analysis in the paper finds compelling evidence of such tax-avoidance and goes on to make a rough calculation of the excess burden associated with the tax.

Here is the full paper by Robert M. Schwab and Wallace E. Oates.

When in doubt, ask Alex Rampell

Alex is very very highly rated by those who know him, but still in the broader scheme of things significantly underrated as a Bay Area tech and finance thinker.  Here is Alex on SPACs:

If the best fundraise (IPO included) aggregates as many potential buyers as possible to raise money at the highest price with the least dilution and lowest fees, it’s hard to understand how a SPAC represents an improvement against those constraints. When a SPAC merges with a target (“de-SPACs”), it’s tantamount to an IPO. The SPAC (already publicly traded, with lots of cash on its balance sheet) and the target company agree on a pre-money valuation for the target; the money sitting in the SPAC becomes the “money raised” (IPO equivalent) with typically a PIPE (Private Investment in Public Equity, a further institutional fundraise / large block sale) done at the same time. As an example, a $500M SPAC might merge with a private company, ascribing a $4.5B valuation to the private company, meaning a $5B post-money valuation of the combined entity. How do we know *this* is the fair price? Should a company meet with one SPAC? Two SPACs? Three SPACs or four? Where is the price discovery?

And while the fee structure of SPACs will likely change, right now it is indisputably a more expensive option with less price discovery. Bankers are paid 5%+ for taking the SPAC public; SPAC investors typically get warrants with their investment; the SPAC sponsor typically gets 20% (of the pre-merger value of the SPAC) for finding a target, so 2% in the above example; a banker is normally hired and paid to handle the merger; a mini-roadshow happens to get approval from the SPAC shareholders AND to potentially secure more cash in the form of a PIPE, for which a banker is also paid.

Most of the post is on why IPOs are less inefficient than you might think, informative and interesting throughout.